12.00pm: Los Angeles Plays Itself
It's a guideline that's worked well for me over the years: never trust a city where you can't get around on foot or by public transport. As a result, I feel entirely justified in loathing Los Angeles purely on the basis of a four-day period I spent there in 1999. Without a car, my sightseeing was pretty much limited to destinations covered by organised tour buses, and a couple of visits to Santa Monica using the one passenger bus that went by my hotel. I discovered that Shane MacGowan was playing in town on the last night of my visit, and then did the sums only to discover that 'in town' in LA meant twenty-five miles away from my hotel, with no obvious means of getting home afterwards. It's a flat, featureless, culture-void hellhole.
Thom Andersen lives in Los Angeles, and has a love/hate relationship with both the city and the movie industry. Hence this film: a three-hour study of the city, made up of clips from over two hundred movies, showing how LA has been portrayed both explicitly and implicitly by Hollywood. The length may seem daunting, but in fact the film breaks down neatly into three hour-long chapters. In the first, he looks at the way Hollywood has chosen to distance itself from the rest of Los Angeles more or less since the beginning of cinema - even the way films always refer to it by the dismissive acronym LA could be considered symptomatic of this. He cuts together footage from all over the place showing how iconic buildings such as Union Station and the Bradbury Building have been used in movies again and again, each time with a different meaning: and in many cases, using the city to double for other cities, and even countries. The weaker second hour expands on this theme to look at the use of LA as a background, and the cliches that have been established over the years, such as the way villains always live in plush modern beachfront homes: "the architectural trophy-house is the modern equivalent of the black hat or the moustache."
But the final hour is where it gets really interesting, looking at films in which Los Angeles is a character in its own right. This gives Andersen the opportunity to compare the real history of the city with the movie version. The way Hollywood wants you to believe that everyone in LA is involved in the movie industry, even though that simply isn't true. The frequent focus in LA movies on their police force: "why do LAPD police cars have their motto 'to protect and to serve' on the side of their cars in quotation marks? Are they being ironic?" And best of all, Andersen looks at the issue of public transport, pointing out that Jake Gittes in Chinatown is as much symbolically castrated by the loss of his car as by the loss of his nostril. He tells the history of how public transportation has been run down over the years by business interests, which scarily means that the movie that comes closest to exposing the corruption at work in the system is Who Framed Roger Rabbit. If there's a conclusion to Andersen's film, it's the final montage of clips from Hispanic and Black independent cinema, in which he states that the films that are closest to the spirit of the city are the ones made by the underclass who can only travel by foot or bus - the people, of course, who rarely feature in Hollywood movies.
Los Angeles Plays Itself is a fairly enthralling three hours, the final third more than making up for the sag in the middle. Andersen's laconic narration (read by Encke King) works as a celebration of the movies featured (no matter how bad some of them are), a history of how a series of villages came together as a massively flawed supercity, and a study of the interplay between the two. There's apparently going to be a DVD released in 2005 - God knows how he'll manage that, as none of the clips shown here are included with permission, but I'll certainly be keen to get it.
4.15pm: Times Screen Talks: Kevin Bacon
As I've already mentioned, we no longer have Guardian Interviews at the LFF, we have Times Screen Talks. This change in sponsorship presumably explains why Wendy Ide, the Times film critic, is chairing today's interview session. She's certainly not there on merit, because she's rubbish: the only preparation she seems to have done is to read the event's programme notes, as the entire structure of her interview is taken from the biographical information there. Thankfully, her interviewee Kevin Bacon manages to keep the show running almost single-handed. He's got a curious technique for answering questions: he spends the first ten seconds of every answer clutching his head and mumbling as if he's coming though a three-day hangover, but gets more lucid as the answer progresses. He has the audience in the palm of his hand from his opening discussion of when he got into acting: "I can never remember a time when I didn't want to be looked at..."
Cheekily, the interview opens with the Let's Hear It For The Boy sequence from Footloose: given Bacon's heavyweight reputation these days, it's easy to forget that this was the movie that made him a superstar for a year or so. (It's also curious to see what basically boils down to the climax of Napoleon Dynamite played entirely straight.) After Footloose, Bacon starred in a series of flops, and was convinced his career was virtually over (though he does appear to have some residual love for the giant worm movie Tremors, and is always amused when people tell him it's their favourite film of his). The turning point came in 1991, when his agent suggested to him that he should return to the sort of edgy character roles he was doing in his early days on stage. He spent four days with Oliver Stone, playing a cameo as a gay prostitute in JFK: the phone started ringing again as soon as it was released. Since then, he's made a point of specialising in darker roles, simply because he finds them more interesting. His latest role, playing a newly-released paedophile in The Woodsman, is just the latest in a series of brave choices by an actor who's realised he doesn't care how people perceive his 'career' any more.
Bacon makes for a charming presence onstage, and is always refreshingly free of actory bullshit. He's engagingly pragmatic about the way he moves between big studio films and tiny indie productions, insisting that both have a lot to learn from each other. He's polite and open throughout the audience Q&A, even treating dumb questions like "who would you least like to work with again?" with some degree of respect. And he even deals with the whole issue of the Six Degrees Of Kevin Bacon game with some aplomb - initially he regarded it as some sort of insult, gradually he realised he'd rather hear it about himself than some other actor. And as he points out, "if everyone realised we were all connected to each other by six degrees of separation, the world would be a much better place." Awwwww.
9.15pm: Tony Takitani
The son of a jazz musician, Tony Takitani (Issey Ogata) has learned since childhood to cope with the absence of his late mother and wandering father. He mainly does this by throwing himself into his artwork, and eventually grows up to become a full-time illustrator. He's so used to the idea of being alone that when he falls in love with the fashion addict Eiko (Miyazawa Rie), he's petrified by the thought of how he would cope if and when their relationship ended, as he's sure he couldn't get used to being alone again. Inevitably, one day he has to answer that question for himself.
In the comics world, there's a lot of argument going on right now about a technique called 'decompression'. It's the application of Japanese comic-book pacing to Western comics - notably the idea that you can spend several pages just depicting the environment the story takes place in, using lots of big pictures and no words, and keeping the amount of narrative content to a minimum. Writers like Warren Ellis see it as a tool for forcing the reader to engage with the story at a deeper level: cynical readers argue that it's a tool for padding six pages of story out to twenty-four and still charging full price for it. Tony Takitani feels to me like a decompressed film. Not a slow film: God knows, I've seen a couple of those this week, and this is different.
Jun Ichikawa's script is an adaptation of a short story by Haruki Murakami. My only previous experience of Murakami's work is Complicite's stage adaptation of three other stories, The Elephant Vanishes. Based on that limited exposure, I'd say that Murakami tends to work in similar territory to the American writer Raymond Carver: both writers seem to specialise in the minutiae of how people get through the pain of their daily lives, in stories that have been cut down to the narrative bone. As a result, the play can tell three complete stories in 100 minutes: this film, however, only tells one story in 75 minutes. What's the difference? It's that Ichikawa's direction is as much concerned with building up a dreamlike atmosphere as it is with telling a story, and - importantly - it never forgets that it has to do both. It does it using long slow camera movements, a narration that's passed between an offscreen narrator and the on-screen characters, and a mesmeric piano score from Ryuichi Sakamoto. If there's a flaw here, it's that Tony Takitani is so utterly reliant on its narration that it's almost just an illustrated audio book: but those illustrations draw you so deeply into the story that it's difficult to complain.
Notes From Spank's Pals
Los Angeles Plays Itself
Maria Sharapova Fanclub - The idea here being to construct both a potted history of and general guide to Los Angeles, using clips from the movies with an accompanying narrative. Thus the first thing you notice is not how many movies there are featuring the city, but rather the sheer mind numbing number of which one has actually seen. This in itself leads to the first weakness of the project. Namely by cramming in so many film clips, this project literally jumps every few seconds onto a different one, which kind of defeats itself. I for one was particularly disappointed more use wasn't made of Laurel and Hardy's The Music Box. Instead the narration seems unclear as to whether the purpose of all these clips is to provide a video background to sardonic humour featuring cops, aliens (illegal and extraterrestial), murderers etc: or alternatively to provide a variety of place references such as the LA central train station, and where and to what cinematic use these landmarks have been put!
As the director promised however, the last third of the film makes for a completely different change of pace. Thus extensive use is made of Chinatown, Blade Runner, Dragnet and LA Confidential. Thus it is shown for Chinatown and LA Confidential how the plots of these movies were used to provide a distorted and revisionist version of LA social history and civic corruption. The TV series and later film Dragnet is also shown in all its faults as an aspirational model of policing for the LAPD. Blade Runner on the other hand is perceived as a civic planner's utopia gone mad. Probably the most interesting thing said however related to the set of LA Confidential, and how architecture for any period is not exclusively modern and regenerating, but instead is an amalgamation of different time periods existing in the present.
The ultimate weakness of the film, which the director is only too aware of though, is in the white non ethnic nature of the undertaking. Thus LA is a city where more people speak Spanish than English, where there are far more Black than White. However apart from a few independent low budget Black films at the end, this is not reflected. To an extent the director here can't be fully blamed, as there is obviously a shortage of mainstream Hollywood source material (i.e. has there ever been a film dealing with the Rodney King LA riots?). Also the director notes the problems of stepping outside of his own personal LA experience and social space. Instead then, we are presented with the confusion of the White middle classes with clips from Grand Canyon, Falling Down and Short Cuts (all three films which I rate highly).
So overall an interesting but hardly definitive take on LA. Someone asked in the Q&A how would such an approach work with London. Hmmm, I suppose one could use a bit of Notting Hill, some of Sliding Doors, a piece of Lock Stock And Two Smoking Barrels........
Sideways (Surprise Film)
Maria Sharapova Fanclub - Miles and Jack are two forty something buddies who take a week long trip across assorted California vineyards, en route to Jack's wedding. Thus while Jack is looking to get laid as often as possible before the big day, Miles is still moping over his two year old divorce, and also whether his novel will get published. It's not long before they meet up with Maya, a waitress and fellow wine buff who has a thing for Miles, and wine merchant Steffi, who is physically everything Jack wants from the week.
I don't really know how much more one can say about this. Thus the odd couple of Miles and Jack, and their romantic (or sexual in Jack's case) shennanegans, are fitfully amusing. Yet whilst enjoyable enough, this bitter sweet romcom isn't anything we haven't seen before. Like Mondovino though there is a whole subtext for the wine buffs among the audience, and as such would have made an excellent double bill with that film.
Paul Giamatti is a couple of notches up from the Harvey Pekar character he played in American Splendor, and seems to me at least to be going after the territory Woody Allen used to occupy in the Eighties. Meanwhile it is nice to see TV movie femme fatale Virginia Madsen in a more mainstream role as waitress Maya.
BFI's Sandra Hebron explained at the start that this is her third year choosing the surprise film, and I guess given the demographic of the audience it is something of a difficult call. If one goes too far out there with one's choice, you may lose an audience for the following year. As such though, I think she might have played just a tad too safe with this one.
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